Death at the Duomo is the first book, just released, in a new series of mystery/thrillers set in Florence, Italy. The Renaissance City’s fictional murder rate is about to rise, requiring the pairing a young Florentine detective, Caterina Falcone, half American, half Italian, with Max Turner, an agent from the American Embassy. The first novel begins with an explosion outside the Duomo on a festival day.
(Most long-time readers of this website know that the author of Death at the Duomo and Tuscan Traveler are one in the same. So this is the semi-strange situation of a self-interview to announce the book’s launch.)
Where did you get the premise for Death at the Duomo?
I love mysteries of all kinds, but especially those set in countries not my own. My favorites are by Donna Leon, Fred Vargas, Jason Goodwin, Daniel Silva and Joseph Kanon. After I had lived in Florence for a few years, I kept discovering places or events that I thought would be perfect for a murder. One was the exhibit of anatomical waxes at the La Specola Museum (the site used in the upcoming Caterina Falcone mystery) and another was Scoppio del Carro (literally, the Explosion of the Cart), the event at the beginning of the first book. With the colorful history of Florence there are unending possibilities for intriguing plots.
Do you prefer to write a novel or a non-fiction book?
I started Tuscan Traveler to keep my writing “up to snuff”. The website provided the basis for my first books, Italian Food Rules and Italian Life Rules, as well as giving me bits of information for my touring clients. I found, however, that it was more fun to incorporate the scenes from Florentine life, information about Tuscan food, and tidbits from historical Florence into a novel. So I gave Caterina Falcone a father who is a chef and restaurant owner. I learned that FBI agents are stationed at most US embassies, but have restrictions placed on how they operate in foreign countries, and Max Turner came to life. I especially enjoy exploring the experiences, good and bad, of foreigners when they encounter the Italian food and life rules, so each of the mysteries will involve tourists and expats in Florence and Tuscany.
What was the best part about being a writer in Italy?
I have a great group of writing friends who meet two times a year in Matera, a fascinating town in the Basilicata region. In the spring a small group meets for a brainstorming session. Death at the Duomo was born there. In the fall the Women’s Fiction Festival takes place. The second year I went the speakers included experts in forensics, cyber-crime and investigations of international crimes. The third or fourth edition concentrated on food writing. Recent years have been rich with information about indie publishing. Every year, literary agents and editors from major publishing companies are available for pitches from authors and staff panels on what’s new in the world of publishing.
Are you going to write a memoir about your sixteen years in Italy?
No. Others have written much better books than I could, ranging from the more standard “under the Tuscan sun” narratives to innovative memoirs, such as Dianne Hale’s two books on language and Mona Lisa.
For years I told friends and family that the Duomo of Florence was called “duomo” because of the dome. Finally, because I was confused by the fact that Milan’s Duomo didn’t have a dome, I did the research. I was mistaken or just completely wrong.
Even the U.S.-based National Geographic got it wrong: “The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower), nicknamed the Duomoafter the enormous octagonal dome [emphasis added] on its east end, is the cathedral of Florence, Italy, and, arguably, the birthplace of the Renaissance.” There are two problems here. First is the duomo/dome mistake. And while Santa Maria del Fiore is a basilica, it is not one of the four major basilicas (see below), and should probably be designated as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
What is a Duomo?
Usually, “Duomo” is a term for an Italian cathedral church (or a former cathedral church). Italian for cathedral is cattedrale. To be designated a cattedrale, the church must have a bishop and a bishop’s chair (cattedra). But to make it more difficult, some, like the Duomo of Monza, have never been cathedrals, but are old and important.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to Lo Zingarelli, the main Italian dictionary, the word “duomo” derives from the Latin word “domus“, meaning “house.” In ancient Rome, the domus was the type of house occupied by the upper classes. It could be found in almost all the major cities throughout the Roman territories. The modern English word “domestic” comes from Latin domesticus, which is derived from the word domus.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin was spoken only by members of the clergy, and so domus started to be used to address the “house of God.” A cathedral is considered the “house of God” or domus Dei and “house of the Bishop” or domus Ecclesia.
The most important church in each city is often called Duomo followed by the name of the city; for example, Duomo di Milano or Duomo di Firenze. This can include small towns, like San Gimignano in Tuscany, which also has a duomo, but wasn’t a cathedral, and the Duomo di Volterra, which was a cathedral with a bishop. There is, however, no church in Rome known as the Duomo or even, a duomo.
The Duomo in Florence
The official website of Florence’s Opera del Duomo tells us: “Santa Maria del Fiore, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, is the third largest church in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London) and was the largest church in Europe when it was completed in the 15th century. It is 153 metres long, 90 metres wide at the crossing, and 90 metres high from the floor to the bottom of the lantern. [The cathedral] was dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, the Virgin of the Flower, in 1412, a clear allusion to the lily, the symbol of the city of Florence.”
Again, having nothing to do with “duomo” or “domus”, the dome of the Florence Cathedral is known in Italian as the “cupola”, as it is for any dome on any Italian church.
Consisting of two interconnected ogival shells, the Duomo’s octagonal cupola was erected between 1420 and 1434 to a design of Filippo Brunelleschi. His innovative approach involved vaulting the dome space without any scaffolding by using a double shell with a space in between. The inner shell (with a thickness of more than two meters) is made of light bricks set in a herringbone pattern and is the self-supporting structural element while the outer dome simply serves as a heavier, wind-resistant covering.
The cupola is crowned by a lantern with a conical roof, designed by Brunelleschi but only built after his death in 1446, while the gilt copper sphere and cross on top of the lantern, containing holy relics, was designed by Andrea del Verrocchio and installed in 1466.
What is a Basilica?
The Basilica was a Roman public building, a sort of tribunal. (The term basilica comes from a Greek word meaning regal or kingly.) When the ancient Romans spoke of a basilica they were referring to a large, high-ceilinged hall with three long aisles. In the centuries after the Roman Empire, the term basilica started to mean “big church,” because the first big churches were built in the style of the old Roman basilicas. Some architectural elements that you can often find in a church (for example, columns, apses, naves) were already present in pre-Christian Roman buildings. Nowadays, many of the main churches in Italy have the formal name of Basilica followed by the name of a saint; for example, Basilica di San Pietro (in Rome), Basilica di San Marco (in Venice).
Over the centuries, the Popes have awarded the title “Minor Basilica” to churches that had unusual historical significance, or were especially sacred because of the presence of a relic or relics. There are over 1400 minor basilicas around the world, 527 just in Italy alone. These honorary basilicas include the great church at the Grotto in Lourdes, the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice, the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The designation Major Basilica is restricted to the four greatest churches in Rome St. Peters, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls.
Update: During the week of 10 April 2016 the news site of La Repubblica Firenze reported that the tourist information signs at the central Florence train station had misidentified the Church of Santa Maria Novella as the Florence Cathedral.
Florence’s cathedral museum, known officially as Museo dell’ Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (Museum of the Works of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), hosts the world’s largest collection of Florentine Medieval and Renaissance sculpture. It reopened to the public on October 29, just in time for Pope Francis’s visit, after an expansion and renovation project lasting two years. The 45 million euro project was funded by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, and was design by Adolfo Natalini and Guicciardini & Magni Architects.
The museum is the anchor for what is known as Il Grande Museo del Duomo, which also includes the Duomo, the Campanile (Giotto’s Bell Tower), the Cupola (Brunelleschi’s Dome), the Baptistry, and the Crypt.
Inside the Museum
Known more simply as the Opera del Duomo or Duomo Museum, it now contains over 750 marble, bronze and silver sculptures and reliefs, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Arnolfo di Cambio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Andrea Pisano, Antonio del Pollaiolo, Luca della Robbia and Andrea del Verrocchio, among others.
The museum displays the original artworks that have been removed from their positions from the façades of the Duomo, Bell Tower, and Baptistry (thereafter replaced by copies) or taken out of daily liturgical use, either for conservation or modernization.
New displays effectively highlight Donatello’s Maddalena, sculpted in wood; the original bronze doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florence Baptistry, known as the “Doors of Paradise”; Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà; and 27 silk and gold embroidered panels designed by Antonio del Pollaiolo.
The Gallery of Brunelleschi’s Dome (1418–36), on the first floor, is one of the most educational highlights of the museum, housing 15th century wooden models including one attributed to Brunelleschi himself, period materials and the tools used to build the dome. The gallery also contains two large wooden models of the Lantern and of the Dome and video provides a virtual view of the building of the edifice.
Because the space of the museum doubled in the new renovation, visitors can also see many works previously held in museum storage, including forty 14th and 15th century statues and fragments of the cathedral’s original medieval façade, which are effectively displayed on a full-sized model made of resin and marble dust of the version designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (1296) that was subsequently destroyed in the 16th century and replaced in 1887 by the present façade. The new Duomo Museum project was under creative direction by Monsignor Timothy Verdon. He is reported saying that the biggest problem was “how to exhibit more than 100 fragments of the cathedral’s lost medieval facade, dismantled in 1586-87, forty statues, many monumental in scale, and some sixty architectural elements”. The medieval façade was rebuilt on the basis of an extant 16th century drawing. The grand room is entitled Salone del Paradiso.
Michelangelo’s Pietà used to be displayed in a small niche room off a stairway in the old museum. Now it has its own room, the Tribuna di Michelangelo. This was Michelangelo’s next-to-last sculpture that, according to contemporary sources, “he meant to adorn the altar near which he expected to be buried in a Roman church. Begun around 1546-1547, the Pietà was abandoned at the end of 1555, when Michelangelo mutilated it: a destructive act due to the elderly master’s frustration at finding flaws in the marble block. Pieced back together, the work was acquired in 1671 by Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and placed in the crypt of the Basilica of San Lorenzo; in 1721 it was transferred to the Duomo and set opposite the Holy Sacrament altar.” (museumflorence.com)
American Director of the Museum
Monsignor Timothy Verdon was born in the United States (Weehawken, NJ, 1946). He is an art historian with a Ph.D. from Yale University.
His first interest in Italian art started as a teenager with visits to the New York City Metropolitan Museum. His first visit to Italy was a trip to Venice at the age of 18. He planned to immerse himself in Renaissance art and based his future studies on the use of iconography in Renaissance and Medieval art.
He has lived in Italy for 47 years and since 1994 has been a Roman Catholic priest in Florence, where he directs both the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage and the Cathedral Foundation Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore).
Author of books and articles on sacred art in Italian and English and has been a Consultant to the Vatican Commission for Church Cultural Heritage and a Fellow of the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti), and currently teaches in the Florence Program of Stanford University.
Monsignor Verdon’s decisions to make this not only a museum containing the past, but to use the communication tools of the present, served to create one of the most relevant museums in Italy for visitors of all ages and interests.
The combined ticket for the Baptistry, Bell Tower, Dome, Crypt and museum is €15 (Children 6 to 11, €3; under 6, free). Entry to the cathedral is free.
Recently, a photograph from the 1850s in Florence was posted online. It’s one of my favorite photos of the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore, and it got me thinking once again about the wedding cake façade of the cathedral because once upon a time it looked like this.
I always tell people that even though the Duomo was finished in the 1400s, the ornate façade wasn’t added until the late 1800s. The way I put it is: In the 1400s they held a competition for the design of the façade and nobody won … and then they ran out of money and then one hundred years passed … and then another century and then another and four-hundred years later, Florence was going to be the capital of the new Italian state and they couldn’t have an ugly Duomo, so they held a competition … and nobody won … so they put a committee together and came up with the present façade that everybody, except for architectural purists, loves.
But I wasn’t completely sure this was absolutely accurate. I decided to dig around in my library and online.
The façade of the Cathedral in pink, white and green marble, the statues, rose windows, mosaics and cusps of Gothic inspiration is the fruit of the historic and romantic taste of the architect, Emilio de Fabris (1808-1883), who, until his death, designed and directed the construction that went on for a decade (1876-1886) with input from several architects who had attempted to produce acceptable earlier designs, among them Giovanni Silvestri (1822), Nicola Matas di Ancona (1842) (who just finished the design of the façade of Santa Croce), and Gian Giorgio Muller (1843-44).
The 19th century project was the second façade for the Duomo. The first only covered the bottom third of the front exterior wall of the cathedral. It was conceived by Arnolfo di Cambio and left unfinished at his death (circa 1302-1310). We can get an idea of what Arnolfo’s façade looked like from a drawing by Bernardino Poccetti found in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo. Poccetti’s sketch was created in 1587, when the decision was made to dismantle Arnolfo’s half-finished façade and substitute it with a more complete and modern one.
Between 1302 and 1587, there was another attempt to clothe the front of the cathedral. In 1490, the cathedral was declared to be in unsound condition. In the records of the Woolmaker’s Guild, which was responsible for the Duomo’s original construction, is a notice that the design for the original façade was contrary to all architectural rules and orders. The authorities resolved on its reconstruction. This decision was zealously supported by the most influential citizen of the day, Lorenzo de’ Medici. A meeting to consider the matter was convened within the cathedral itself, but, though many eminent artists attended, the discussion ended without coming to a satisfactory conclusion.
The first competition for its completion was announced in 1491, but the jury put off choosing the winner because they did not find any of the presented projects particularly convincing. In one of the upper floors of the Museo Opera del Duomo there are various models and architectural drawings proposed for the new façade to replace the one by Arnolfo.
The façade was left in its unfinished state until the reign of the Grand Duke Francesco I (1575-1587). Finally, the Gothic façade of Arnolfo was torn off in 1587. The court architect Bernardo Buontalenti proposed that the Medici Grand Duke undertake the project by including it in the program intended to modernize the city that had already been started in Vasari’s time. Buontalenti took part in the 1586 competition with a model of classical Baroque inspiration, which we are probably lucky was not carried out. Other participants in the competition included the sculptor Giambologna and Don Giovanni Medici (1566-1621), the illegitimate son of Cosimo I and Eleonora degli Albizzi (he was the architect of the Chapel of the Princes in San Lorenzo).
As part of the removal process, some of the original marble Arnolfo elements were integrated into the new flooring that was being laid in the interior of Santa Maria del Fiore. A few statues were transported out of Italy and ended up in museums in France and England. But most of the sculptural elements and statues were stored inside the Opera del Duomo, later converted into the present Museum.
These statues can still be seen today in a room on the ground floor. Five were sculpted by Arnolfo himself: St. Zanobus, St. Reparata, the Madonna and Child (1296) with unusual glass eyes, the Madonna of the Nativity and the interesting Pope Boniface VIII, a solidly constructed sculpture whose partial rigidity seems to emphasize the impression of power and authority of the personage. (Dante would have argued against the inclusion of the hated Pope who he reserved a place in the eighth circle of hell in the the Inferno.)
The 1586 competition resulted in no decision, no construction.
A new competition was held in 1633, this time won by the Academy of Fine Arts. The execution was entrusted to the Opera del Duomo’s architect, Gherardo Silvani. The first stone was laid in 1636, but two years later everything was suspended because of the fierce criticism of the project by Silvani himself, who had also unsuccessfully presented a model of his own in the 1633 competition. At this time there was also some sort of scandal that erupted over the project. The new unfinished façade was condemned and removed.
In 1689, on the marriage of Prince Ferdinando, the second son of the Grand Duke Cosimo III, with Duchess Violante Beatrice of Bavaria, the rubble and cement on the front of the cathedral were covered with a coating of paint, representing columns and other architectural decorations. These eventually faded away, worn by time and weather, over the hundred and sixty years that passed before the Cathedral project was revived.
In 1843 Nicola Matas di Ancona proposed a design for the façade. Other architects argued for their own designs. In 1859 a new competition was held. Politics intervened and another competition was commenced in 1861. The judges were dissatisfied with all of the proposals. In 1863, another competition was held. In 1865, the year Florence became the capital of Italy, a new panel of judges awarded the prize to Emilio de Fabris.
But, subsequent discussion rendered that decision null and void.
Another competition was called for. This time, the panel was chaired by Pietro Salvatico. He liked Emilio de Fabris’s design, but wanted some changes. A bit of back and forth ensued and in 1876, five years after the capital of Italy moved to Rome, the work on the present façade of the Duomo began. Ten years later, it was completed.
Then the critics began to weigh in, viewing the design and execution as those that would be expected from a committee, which attempted a modern concept while having to incorporate four hundred years of architectural history in the design. Architectural purists may not like the Duomo’s façade, but most of us are in awe every time we see it.
When a Florentine speaks of anything which was destined never to be completed, he would compare it to the cathedral, “La non sarà; già l’opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.” (“It will never be finished; yes, indeed, like the works of Santa Maria del Fiore.”)
Experience the extraordinary opening of the Porta del Cielo (Door of Heaven) – or, at least, Siena’s version of it. From April 6 to October 27, 2013, if you happen to visit Siena, don’t miss this spectacular opportunity.
For the first time, after extensive renovation, it will be possible to take a tour of the walkways in the vault of the Duomo of Siena. Internal passages, balconies (both inside and outside) and hidden attic spaces will be open to small, guided groups. Until now, these parts of the Cathedral were accessible only to the architects and builders in charge of maintaining the structure over the centuries.
The two massive towers on each side of the façade of the Duomo house spiral staircases that lead up into the roof where there is a series of walkways and rooms that provide astonishing views of both the interior of the Duomo and the city of Siena outside.
You will be able to look down onto the marble intarsia floor of the main nave and understand its design in a way that until now could only be done through photographs. You will be able to traverse the walkway over the main altar and almost reach out and touch Duccio di Buoninsegna’s stained glass rose window. Finally, you will be able to walk along the balcony inside the dome of the cathedral from which there is a fabulous view of the high altar.
The visiting itinerary “from above” will thus permit visitors to better understand the dedication of the Cathedral of Siena to the Assumption of the Madonna, and the strong connection the people of Siena have had with their ‘patron’ for centuries: Sena vetus civitas Virginis.
The exterior views extend over the Basilica of St. Domenico, the Medici Fortress, the entire dome of the chapel of St. John the Baptist and the landscape of the surrounding Sienese hills.
The Door to Heaven Guided Tour (La Porta del Cielo)
6 April – 27 October, 2013
Reservations required: tickets per person €25, groups of max 17 people €400. Tel +39 0577 286300 (Monday – Friday 9am – 5pm) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For all of the details of what to wear and what to consider before taking the tour see the official website.